Cold January temperatures did not dampen the enthusiasm of the students who took to the cloudless skies—a cerulean just a few shades lighter than Colby blue—earlier this month at the Robert LaFleur Airport in Waterville.
They flew in a small airplane piloted by flight instructor Michael Mitchell, who took them on a swooping, scenic ride over the Kennebec Valley, with snowy fields, tidy towns, and forested hills stretched out like a painting far below.
The flight was part of Dare Skyward, a Jan Plan aviation course in its second year. Students often take advantage of January to seek out new experiences and learn about topics or acquire skills that they may not encounter during the academic year.
The class, and the flight, lit a fire for students like Jacob Petty ’26, of Arlington, Va., who seemed alight with possibilities after his turn in the plane.
“I’ve always loved aviation. This is the perfect class for me,” he said. “It feels like a stepping stone to something else.”
A family history of flying
That’s just what Warren Claytor ’92 hoped for when he envisioned the class a couple of years ago. Claytor, an architect and pilot based near Philadelphia, comes from a family with a rich aviation history. His grandmother, Mary Ingersoll, was an early aviator in the 1930s, and his grandfather, Richard Claytor, was a flight deck officer on the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La in World War II.
So for Claytor and his older brothers, Tom ’85 and Brannon ’88, learning to fly seemed within the realm of what’s possible. They all learned to fly at a young age, and all flew planes while attending the College. Tom, a bush pilot and writer who won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship while at Colby, has flown around the world. Brannon, a reconstructive plastic surgeon, has flown to rural parts of the United States, including far-flung corners of Maine, to perform surgeries. Warren uses his pilot’s license to travel up and down the East Coast to meet with architecture clients.
The allure and promise of flight are things that Warren Claytor had wanted to share with other students since he did his solo flight in Waterville during his senior year, and why he was happy to donate money to start the Jan Plan course.
“One of the great things about aviation, and why I wanted to bring it back to the students at Colby, is that aviation is not just about being in an airplane,” he said. “It’s about empowering students, exposing them to something new, and giving them another tool in their toolbox, so to speak.”
Aviation can also help support communities, Claytor said, with the increasing air traffic at the Waterville airport a good example of that.
“General aviation is such an asset to rural communities and small cities,” he said. “Thank goodness LaFleur is still there.”
Last winter Dare Skyward got off the ground with the intention of exposing students to the physics, history, and practical possibilities of aviation. The students experienced ground school, logged time in the flight simulator, and learned about aircraft maintenance and airport management. They also read books from classic works of aviation, including Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, and wrote a paper that synthesized their experiences.
For some, the class was a revelation.
“I saw that I can do hard things,” one student wrote in last year’s final paper. “I believed I was afraid of heights and of falling, and yet I sat in the sky mesmerized by the beauty below me. … I want to annihilate the fears that try to hold me back from living my life. I can do more than I think I can. Aviation has begun to teach me that.”
The class aims to give students a taste of flying and to show them that aviation could open the world to them. Some people envision a career in aviation as becoming a commercial pilot, but it can go beyond that, said Chip McCulloch, the general manager of Airlink Flight School, which is providing instruction for the Jan Plan course. The life experiences of the Claytor brothers show just how varied and useful aviation can be to a person’s life.
“We’re not doing this just so the students are thinking, ‘OK, I can go be a pilot for American Airlines,’” McCulloch said. “There are a lot of things that you can do with a pilot’s license to contribute to whatever field of study that you’re in.”
This year 14 students signed up for the aviation class.
It has taken creativity to dream up the class in the first place and a willingness on Colby’s part to make it happen, McCulloch said. Students get to fly, and along the way they will learn what’s needed to pass the ground portion of the private pilot license test.
“Every [Federal Aviation Administration] pilot out there, no matter who, doesn’t matter if you’re Tom Cruise in Top Gun or me, goes through the exact same private pilot training to get to certain standards of knowledge and skill to be able to get a private pilot’s license,” he said.
That opportunity was thrilling for Branden Brown ’23, a music and computer science major from Bloomfield, N.M., who is taking the course.
“My brother’s in the Air Force, and I got really sick of him just bragging about planes,” Brown said. “He seems very excited for me. So far, the actual flying, it’s a little surreal, especially looking over campus. Everything looks so small and tiny. It’s a whole new view of Waterville.”
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